MRR Review: "Interior.Leather Bar"

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Filmmakers James Franco and Travis Mathews re-imagine the lost 40 minutes from "Cruising" as a starting point to a broader exploration of sexual and creative freedom.
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Rating: NR
Length: 60 minutes
Release Date: January 2, 2014
Directed by: James Franco and Travis Mathews
Genre: Drama

First appearing in the United States at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, "Interior. Leather Bar." is a docudrama inspired by the 1980 psychological thriller "Cruising." Long rumored that "Cruising" director William Friedkin cut 40 minutes of explicit material from the film to avoid an "X" rating, this 2013 release expands on the "Cruising" myth to imagine and recreate the lost footage, which turns out to be nothing short of an intense exploration into male and human sexuality--and the underground world of BDSM.

To better understand "Interior. Leather Bar," a basic familiarity--or, better yet, a viewing-- of "Cruising" is recommended, though not mandatory. The 1980 film features NYPD detective Steve Burns (played by Al Pacino) going undercover into the sleazy underground gay subculture of New York City in pursuit of a serial killer who has murdered numerous gay men with S&M tactics and spread their limbs throughout the city. The heterosexual detective finds himself thrust headlong into the unfamiliar gay subculture in an attempt to track suspects and bring the killer to justice. However, the nature of the chase not only puts a damper on his job, but also his relationship with his girlfriend, Nancy.

The concept behind the 60-minute film "Interior. Leather Bar.” is a simple one, and filmmakers James Franco and Travis Mathews appear as themselves. Mathews is an emerging independent documentarian, and he finds a relatively unlikely partner in Franco, who found mainstream success through his work in the "Spider-Man" film trilogy and showcases such as "127 Hours". "Interior. Leather Bar." is a continuation of Franco's recent dalliance into experimental and occasionally transgressive work. The piece examines heterosexual actor Val Lauren's discomfort with the concept of performing as a homosexual through the use of the bondage, role-playing and restraint so common in the BDSM community. The film draws parallels between Lauren and Al Pacino's character in "Cruising." In one scene, the viewer hears Lauren talking on his cell phone to his wife, and it is evident that he is disturbed by his immersion in a predominately homosexual environment and by engaging in acts which he considers taboo. While Lauren certainly seems uncomfortable with his surroundings, it is also clear that part of his discomfort stems from confusion and a lack of understanding of the subculture.

Remarkably, "Interior. Leather Bar." thoroughly explores the limits of sexual and creative freedom over just a single day or two of production. A pawn amid the backdrop of a frenzied film set, Lauren reluctantly agreed to take the lead role in the film, and he is repeatedly forced to negotiate his boundaries during scenes both on camera and off, with unsimulated gay sex and bondage play occurring all around him. The film as a whole is an exploration of homosexual male culture and the response to it from those on the outside looking in, and it is daring in both subject and form.

Unusual in stature and title, this imagining of the lost 40 minutes from "Cruising” has garnered its share of praise. The New York Times proclaimed it one of the "best surprises” of Sundance. Notable English film director, screenwriter and producer Andrew Haigh called the film "A brazingly provocative and fearless ride defying easy categorization. Matthews continues to force his own path doing what no one else in queer cinemas is doing. I loved this film." Director Gus Van Sant has also deemed the performance "Awesome, complicated, strange and avant-garde."

Given its unapologetic depiction of sexuality, the film has garnered a fair amount of criticism, with many viewers turned off by the explicit material. "Variety" went as far as to call the film "infuriating.” As director Travis Mathews' movies focus largely on gay men and intimacy, some critics have argued that the film is merely a ploy to keep the topic of homosexuality central to modern-day society and politics. One thing, however, remains clear: As much a piece of filmmaking as it is an exploration of sexual orientation, boundaries and creativity, "Interior. Leather Bar.” is a film defiant of any easy categorization. Both the film's short length and limited target audience have kept it from the theatrical platform and have served to limit its release to art house showings and LGBT film festivals.

The docudrama is certainly not for everyone; some are sure to turn to the 60-minute motion picture out of mere curiosity, while others are active proponents of the "queer movement." Friedkin or Pacino fans are sure to seek out the film for its connection to their work. Regardless, the short film co-directed by Franco and Matthews has garnered the attention of those looking for something just a little out of the norm.

Rating: 3 out of 5